I was married in 1981 and was a successful youth pastor at a large church with 300 kids in my youth group. My wife was a teacher at the adjoining Christian school. We were the perfect Christian couple. But within a month we began to argue about our differences. Perhaps this is somewhat normal with first-year marriages, but for me it became a time of great confusion. I was beginning to repeat the behaviors I had seen in my home as a child. I began to become abusive. I put my wife down mentally and emotionally. I was causing her pain. I had to be right; I always had to win. Our home was not peaceful place. It was at our lowest point that a close friend of ours gave us a gift, three counseling sessions with a “growth psychologist” named Dr. Frank Freed. I will never forget Frank. He was a WWII veteran who had had his arm and ear blown off in a mortar attack in Germany. During our first visit, Dr. Freed put his good arm around us and said, “Fifty percent of your problem is already resolved because you admit you have a problem. Whatever you are going through, I will help you get through it. I give you my word.” It took a year of individual and group therapy, but I finally wrestled through my dysfunction. That was 33 years ago, and I have unashamedly been in personal therapy to remain emotionally healthy – for the past 33 years. Although it has not been a perfect road, my wife and I have a completely different relationship now than we had in 1981; I love and cherish her. We have chosen to change; we have chosen to grow – but may I never forget that it could have turned out much differently.
In reading our text for this week, The Great Transformation, I could not get the thoughts in the Collateral Damage text out of my mind concerning the evil potential of humankind. Of what is humankind capable? Given the right circumstances, everyone is capable of inconceivable evil. This is a hard pill to swallow, but it is, I believe, a reality for each of us to consider carefully. Can we change this tendency, or are we doomed to this fate as individuals and as societies? Can we grow out of our tendencies toward greed, power hunger, oppression of others, selfishness, and sins of omission? Perhaps – perhaps not.
“The nineteenth century produced a phenomenon unheard of in the annuls of Western Civilization, namely, a hundred years’ peace – 1815-1914.” This sounds so amazing. A hundred years’ peace! But peace for whom? Just because there were no large-scale wars during this time period, could we assume that mankind was truly at peace? John Locke’s vision for “international peace and trade” among nations had a ring of hope and optimism within it. But who would benefit from this peace and trade? Nation-states were a fairly recent phenomenon in Europe. In fact, according to many historical commentators, the first modern state was not even fully fashioned until the sixteenth century. And to be successful, newly formed states, by necessity, had to field standing armies to ensure their sovereignty. And these armies were indeed used, not merely for defensive purposes but for countless offensive and imperial pursuits. The Continental carnage was beyond belief in the centuries leading to Polanyi’s “hundred years’ peace.” So what accounted for this change?
Finance, trade, commerce – these terms have not been a part of my personal history, and this is likely why Polanyi’s text was such a tough read for me. But I learned from our reading that global economic issues were at the heart of the time of peace in the Western world during the 19th century. However, not everyone experienced peace in these times. In Britain and elsewhere in Europe the working classes were suffering under government policies. Perhaps one of the most influential minds of the times was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who thrust his theory of Utilitarianism into 18th and 19th century political and economic history. In his powerful book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, Michael Sandel says of Bentham:
He heaped scorn on the idea of natural rights, calling them “nonsense upon stilts.” The philosophy he launched has had an influential career. In fact, it exerts a powerful hold on the thinking of policy-makers, economists, business executives, and ordinary citizens to this day.
Bentham, an English moral philosopher and legal reformer, founded the doctrine of utilitarianism. Its main idea is simply stated and intuitively appealing: The highest principle of morality is to maximize happiness, the overall balance of pleasure over pain. According to Bentham, the right thing to do is whatever will maximize utility. By “utility,” he means whatever produces pleasure or happiness, and whatever prevents pain and suffering.
Bentham arrives at his principle by the following line of reasoning: We are all governed by the feelings of pain and pleasure. They are our “sovereign masters.” They govern us in everything we do and also determine what we ought to do. The standard of right and wrong is “fastened in their throne.”
My questions for Bentham are many. How can you so easily rule out human rights? For whom are you maximizing happiness and pleasure? For whom are you preventing pain and suffering? Polanyi writes of Bentham:
“…Jeremy Bentham, the most prolific of all social projectors, formed the plan of using paupers on a large scale to run machinery devised by his even more inventive brother, Samuel, for the working of wood and metal. “Bentham,” says Sir Leslie Stephen, “had joined his brother and they were looking for a steam engine. It had now occurred to them to employ convicts instead of steam.” This was in 1794; Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon plan with the help of which jails could be designed so as to be cheaply and effectively supervised had been in existence for a couple of years, and he now decided to apply it to his convict-run factory; the place of the convicts was to be taken by the poor. Presently, the Bentham brothers’ business venture merged into a general scheme of solving the social problem as a whole.”
This was the tip of the iceberg for Bentham’s theories. The rich have always afflicted the poor in almost every society. The struggle between the “haves and the have-nots” has been a societal evil throughout history. But now, with the inception of a self-sustaining market world, the stakes grew higher and the abuse more intense. The desire for personal pleasure and happiness for the few had dire consequences on the masses.
In the United States during the same time period of which Polanyi writes, entire nations of indigenous peoples were being driven from their lands and murdered, all under the excuses of utilitarianism and the “progress” of civilization. I call these events the “hidden wars,” which causes me to disagree with our text regarding the absence of war and the abundance of peace during the 19th century. This echoes back to Bauman’s assertion that humankind is capable of indescribable evil. As I write, I find myself mourning the loss the pain of real humans who were dehumanized in this time period. God help us to remember. God help us to care. God help us to change. God help us to grow.
In the past few weeks a close family member left her husband. Both are Christians. Why did she leave? Abuse. Personal utilitarianism. She has been continually put down and afflicted mentally and emotionally for years. My wife and I saw this coming, but did not know the extent of the damage and pain until recently. It is a disheartening situation, one that did not need to happen. The husband has refused to change. He must always be right. He must always win. He has also refused to listen to the needs of his wife, needs that are real. He has refused to grow, to receive counsel, to acknowledge his selfish behaviors. He has staunchly refused to change, but change has come – in ways he didn’t expect. Change is inevitable; growth is optional.
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001)
 Zygmunt Bauman, Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age (Cambridge, UK and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011)
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 5.
 Phillip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (New York: Anchor Books, 2003)
 Michael J. Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009) 34.
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, 111-112.
 Zygmunt Bauman, Collateral Damage, Chapter 9.